I was reading this great article from Ash Smith over at www.superhumanperformance.org which was all about how kids developing amazing abilities by challenging each other and trying to outdo the last trick or skill they have performed.
It took me back to my childhood when I used to invent games with my brother and freinds to play in the park or the garden and I recognise now that this helped me to develop my abilities in a big way and also were the first steps on my coaching journey.
Essentially, I was using a constraints based model for game design without knowing it!
For example one of the games was a garden cricket game played with a golf ball and a really thin bat we called 'Golf Ball Nightmare'!
Golf Ball Nightmare (GBN) was so called for a couple of reasons..
1. It was a golf ball and if it hit you in the shin or on the knuckle then it hurt which was a nightmare. There was a healthy element of fear involved!
2. We played towards the house and if you caught one with the bat then it could hurtle towards the patio window. The bowler had to be brave and stop the ball from smashing the window so as to stop us from being grounded for the rest of our lives!
The game was intense but it was one of the best games we played, we would play for hours and took great pleasure whenever we smashed each oher on the shins and laughed as the other person hopped around holding their lower leg!
The reason the game worked was because it was brilliantly designed!
We started with the player experience...what did we want from the game?
We wanted to all have a go at batting regularly so the game had to be hard so that people got out a lot.
It had to have fear so that we could show our bravery or laugh at each other when we got a bit hurt but it couldn't be too dangerous or we wouldn't want to play.
You had to show skill to stay in bat.
Everyone needed to be involved, fielding is boring so we needed to make sure that fielders had some skin in the game. They really had to be on their toes to stop the windows getting smashed and us all getting into really deep trouble.
The golf ball bounced more realistically than a tennis ball.
Most of this design happened by accident and we made up most of the rules as we went along, modifying and tweaking the way it was played in order to make it harder or easier, more dangerous or less dangerous.
A big part of the fun was making up the rules and coming up with the game formats.
Jane McGonigal is a game designer and she talks pasiionately about the role that games and play can have to enrich our lives. I can definitely align with that!
I am left thinking how much the youth sports experience is like this.
The vast majority of kids aren't playing garden games like this anymore as they are so hooked into video games that are designed by very smart people who spend their lives working out ways to make their games more fun and more addictive so that the kids want to play again and again.
So our challenge is to think like these super smart game designers and try and beat them at their own game. We have to create really 'sticky' activities that they are going to want to do again and again.
So here are some questions to ask yourself when you are designing your activity?
Is everyone engaged?
Is there a challenge that makes them strive to go beyond their abilities?
Do players get loads of goes or do they need to stand around and wait?
Does the activity require them to solve a problem?
Do they have to think about solutions themselves and work it out or do they get given the answers?
Do they get feedack that encourages the effort in trying rather than just praise which encourages not failing?
Does it simulate the game effectively, is it realistic to what they will confront when they play in matches?
For some of us, thinking through these activities and coming up with games or activities that answer these questions is a really challenge...
So I will give you a couple of secrets...
1. Just use trial and error.
The first go at anything is rarely the best version so be prepared to flex and improve as you go. Some of my best activities have come from me having to solve a problem in the session because something wasnt working and making a tweak that made the whole activity loads better.
2. Get the kids to design with/for you.
Kids are really creative and they love designing games. They will come out with some crazy ideas that you won't even think of, you can then distill these down into something that will be really good. I often ask the question "how can we make this even better" or "how can we make it harder". The answers are usually genius.
Some people are fearful of this because they think that they will look like they don't know what they are doing?
I would answer like this...
Do we want to look good...or do we want to get better? Do we have a Growth Mindset as coaches or do we have a Fixed Mindset?
I will leave Trev Ragan from www.trainugly.com to reinforce the point.
Get out there and coach ugly!
One of the things that I hear a lot about in the world of kids sport is the need for children to experience more 'back yard' games. When people talk about this this they are harking back to the days where kids played street sports or messed around in the parks and developed skills without adult supervision.
It is that perfect cliche of the sports pundit, "when I were a lad...we used to use jumpers for goalposts..." etc etc. Paul Whitehouse captured the caricature perfectly when he created the character 'Ron Manager' in the excellent 'Fast Show' (they don't make comedy shows like this anymore...it was better in my day etc, etc).
In 'The Talent Code', Daniel Coyle argues that this form of spontaneous play has been cited as being behind the success of the Brazilian Football team who's best players are said to cultivate their excellent ball control playing small sided, reduced space games in the 'Favelas', the shanty towns that make up the superbs of most Brazilian cities.
While this kind of character is created as a way of poking fun at the older generation that always think that things were better when they were growing up it appears that they may have a point in this case!
Scientists now suggest that this model of development is more effective from skill retention perspective. It seems the oldies may have been right all along!
Researchers have now suggested that skills can be better learned 'implicitly' using trial and error and a large number of repetitions allowing the player to develop novel and inventive solutions to game problems which means that they develop techniques that would not otherwise be taught.
This concept of 'Implicit Learning' or 'Experiential Leanring' has been defined by Seger (1994) as "learned complex information without complete verbalisable knowledge of what is learned"
Put in the language of normal people implicit learning is...'getting good at something without being told how' or 'learning by doing'.
The suggestion here is that coaches and parents should 'get out of the way' of players attempts to perform skills as the solutions that they might come up with could be far more effective or innovative than the existing techniques that we might teach them.
As sports continuously develop, the skills of today may not be relevent in the next 5 or 10 years and so teaching them what we consider to be the 'fundamentals' might be irrelevant or actually be counter productive.
So how do we apply this?
The Australian Sports Commission's 'Sports Coach' section on their website has some interesting thoughts on this subject and make a series of really useful suggestions which I will simplify below:
Explain the skill requirements by analogy or metaphor so that the need for explicit verbal information is minimised — for example, "instead of saying trap the ball with soft hands" you could say "let the stick kiss the ball".
Use task-related instructions — for example, when training tennis players to anticipate the return of serve, researchers found that players told to predict the speed of a serve improved their performance in predicting service direction more than players given specific instructional tips to facilitate the prediction of service direction
Get players to perform a secondary task while performing a primary skill — for example, requiring basketball players to listen to music on a walkman, and sing aloud while shooting free throws may take the focus off technical execution and allow implicit or subconscious processes to control the skill.
Design games using different scoring systems, boundaries or rules restrictions that require players to use particular strategies to win the game (a ‘game sense’-type approach). Allow them time to determine the most appropriate strategy/response rather than explicitly telling them the specific solution at the commencement of the activity.
A word of caution here...don't go throwing the baby out with the bath water!
Some researchers have cast doubt over whether the full range of learning is taking place in this model and have called for a skillful blending of the 2 approaches to ensure that learners are getting the best possible experience.
This is not a call to have coaches saying nothing during training sessions but it is a call for coaches to become highly skilled at using the right interventions at the right time to maximise the learning of the players.
There are a number of techniques that I would use here to ensure that learning is taking place which I will categorise in the next post.
Those people who are subscribed to my email list will get these techniques before everybody else so if you are the impatient/curious type please feel free to join the community and I will make sure you get the follow up sooner!
All the best
Some of you may know that I work as a Talent Academy Coach which is a great experience as I am have the privilege of working with some pretty awesome young people who are constantly surprising me with some of the things that they are able to do.
The Academy programme is breaking new ground because for the first time the u16 and u18 age groups are being coached together and also boys and girls are in the session working together as well. As you can imagine this makes for some interesting planning challenges
We allow the players to explore challenges and develop solutions to problems that we put in front of them. As coaches we work to manipulate things like space, player numbers and tasks to present the players with challenges and to see how they respond to them and learn to adapt.
So here is my quandary...
"What do we do when a player doesn't even have the fundamental skills required to be able to explore the solutions?"
The challenge we have is that there is quite an ability range so pitching the activity is quite difficult...too much of a stretch and they they are so internally focused on getting the basics right that they aren't really able to find solutions effectively...too easy and they begin to drift off and don't stay focused on working through the challenge.
I recently tweeted this great article by gymnastics coach Anne Josephson which outlined '35 secrets of brilliant coaches' which got a lot of interest and I thought I would share number 28 as I found it useful to help me with this quandary.
"28. Give plenty of time for new skills to develop. Brilliant coaches allow at least eight weeks for athletes to learn a new skill. As the athlete progresses in the sport that time frame will actually get longer, not shorter, as the skills are increasingly complex".
I think that this is a problem that many of us face in our coaching. We are too quick to move on. Whether it is in the interests of wanting to provide variety so players don't get bored or because we know that we have a lot to get through and need to move on we don't allow the required time for skills to become ingrained...and we are then frustrated when the players don't perform the skills effectively in the game.
Another great source that a looked to for answers is Doug Lemov's latest book " Practice Perfect" which is a gold mine of highly practical suggestions to assist with all aspects of coaching and practice design. The book is split up into a series of 42 'rules' and right at the start in rule number 2 is an idea that makes total sense to me. The authors refer to 'Practice the 20' where they suggest that we should focus in on the "20% that is going to provide 80% of the value".
So these are the conclusions I have come to...
Don't be in too much of a rush. The players are ready to move on when they are ready to move on.
Work with each athlete individually and help them to identify their 20% development area. I do a lot on 1 to 1s with players during breaks or at the start and end of the session to get them to focus in on thier personal development area. I can then reference this throughout the session with a nod or quick 'hot review' during the session.
Be relentless in reaffirming these focus areas even though we might feel like we need to add variety and move on.
Create opportunities for repetition of these skills without it becoming repetitive. Vary the activity while still working on the same skill or development area. You can tweak the same activity just a bit to challenge ina different way.
Be clear on your own mind on what is the 'critical path' for the athlete or athletes and help them stay on that path.
If you have any other thoughts I would love to here them.
P.S. My mission is to try and share my experiences with as many coaches and parents as I can so if you found this mail useful at all then please help me to reach some more people by sharing this.